Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Postmodern Ethics: Social Evil, Individual Good

I ran across this fascinating little column by Denis Prager in the L.A. Times.  It details what I would label as a postmodern ethical trend in public schools.  He tells the story of asking a room full of high school students if they would steal from a department store if they were sure they would not get caught.  In front of cameras taping for a syndicated pilot, the majority of them raised their hands.  Based on this and his experience speaking to youth, Prager draws a handful of conclusions regarding public education and moral development.  The whole article is worth a read, but a couple of points in particular stood out to me.

In these two conclusions Prager notes how morality is abstracted to the social level and not applied on an individual level, and that when moral demands are made of individuals they regard health and not personal vice and virtue.  In his words:

To the extent that schools deal with right and wrong, it is in the arena of social values, not personal behavior. Students are taught what the schools deem correct positions on matters of social concern — such as war, the environment, social justice — but little about personal integrity. At the entrance of a highly regarded Los Angeles public school, there is a sign calling for world peace in four languages. Other signs on campus similarly exhort students to adopt various social positions. Not one sign addresses self — as opposed to social — amelioration.

To the extent that demands are made on young people, they concern health, not integrity and character. Smoking, for instance, is villainized. Copying software, downloading music without paying for it, cheating on tests, lying on insurance claims are not.

Now, the things decried in these two points ought to be decried.  The problem is that they are moral points pressed to the exclusion of personal virtue.

I call this a postmodern moral condition for a couple of reasons.  First, because postmodern morality is inherently relativistic, all individuals are exempt from moral judgment and are then by definition “good.”  Secondly, and ironically, in our postmodern milieu, it is popular to make a certain type of moral judgment-namely judgments that are relatively nebulous and corporate in scale.  So, it is commonplace to hear pollution, greed, violence and the like labeled as “bad,” but never connected to personal moral evil.  A typical exception may be the moral hypocrisy of labeling big-business leaders as evil but failing to label the same evil traits in others as evil.  Thus it appears that evil is a function of influence and not of personal vice.  Moral relativism is the kind of view that is not only self referentially destructive, but it also destroys the rational capacities of those who adhere to it.  

Thus, in Prager’s example, the youth were able to justify personal vice because they viewed a certain type of corporate entity as evil.

The Christian ethic is clear: societies, groups, corporations, etc., can commit evil, but culpability ultimately rests on individuals.  What was the Nazi regime but a collection of individuals, some of which were so evil and influential they were able to illicit tremendous evils from others?  Look at this from the angle of retribution or the enactment of justice for evil committed by a regime.  The Nuremberg trials did not condemn Nazism to the gallows-it condemned several individuals.  How is a collective to be punished if not individual by individual?

In addition, the Christian ethic explains how corporate evils come to be: they are the result of individuals making evil or sinful decisions.  Individuals have within them the capacity for great sin, and thus their influence sometimes leads to great evils on large scales.

It is moral cowardice to selectively label collectives as evil and not recognize or acknowledge the potential evil inherent in each and every individual.  It is the equivalent of naming everything we personally favor as “good” and everything we personally dislike as “evil.”  When that happens, both words become vacuums of meaning, infinitely malleable and ultimately completely useless.


Brian B said...

I wonder if one of the reasons public schools stick primarily to moral claims at the social, instead of individual, level, is that doing the latter might require taking a very obvious personal, partisan stand - and that's something that schools are not, apparently, supposed to do. Imagine if, instead of saying "environmental responsibility is a good thing," they said "the following CEOs have contributed X tons of pollutants to our ground water," or "the policies advocated by the following senators, representatives, and the President, will result in X additional deaths and Y billion dollars in increased health care costs this year." Actually, I wish they would say things like that - to connect up "abstract issues" with the particular people and decisions responsible for real problems. But, of course, that leads down the difficult road of being "balanced" (e.g. picking on "one side" for issue X, and the "other side" for issue Y, etc.), since even the appearance of being biased would render everything moot.

And you'd have the additional problem of being viewed as "political," even though all the things Prager mentions - environmentalism, social justice, war - are paradigmatically ethical and moral issues (despite their political consesquences and implications).

Here's one possible way to avoid some of those (unfortunate) difficulties - say things like "seek to be environmentally conscious in your own life. Here's how..." This puts the responsibility on the individual not just to "have the right view," but to actually live morally. I strongly suspect, however, that doing even this would immediately become viewed (accurately or inaccurately) as "merely political." I think it says something deeply problematic about our culture when they seek to dichotomize politics and morality, but given that they do, I think it would be all but a non-starter, at the practical level, to seek to inculcate anything but abstract, insipid, sound-bite laden, inoffensive, pseudo-morality in our schools.

Kevin Winters said...

Phil, could you provide me with some names and quotes from major postmodern figures who hold this relativistic view of ethics? I'm curious about the source(s) of your generalization that all postmodernists are ethical relativists.

Phil Steiger said...


I know plenty postmodern thinkers deny that they are relativists because many of them see the obvious problems with holding that position. But to name a few, Rorty, Derrida, Lytoard and Baudrillard come to mind (not to mention postmodern literary theorists). I know specifically that Rorty denies being a relativst, but then goes on to affirm that "truth is what my colleauges let me get away with" and in several other places ties moral values to cultural settings. He is so against moral metanarratives that he labeled his metaphysic "antirepresentationalism."

In my guess, those are pretty influential authors in the postmodern mileau.

And take note that I said the postmodern moral condition is inherently relativistic. I do not deny there are postmodern thinkers who may not be out-and-out prescriptive moral relativists, but it is my contention than much of what passes for postmodern philosophy, if it is not moral relativism, is a major step in that direction. And on a popular cultural level, I believe the postmodern condition is exhibited primarily through religious and moral relativism.

Kevin Winters said...


Thanks for the references. I ask because what is often put forward as 'postmodern' is, quite often, a misreading of that philosopher. For example, I am quite certain that Derrida is not a moral relativist, neither is he a literary relativist. The very foundations of deconstruction demand that relativism is false; when deconstruction is tied to relativistic tendencies, as it often is by its critics, then it is self-contradictory.

For Rorty, I can agree: as much as he tries to deny it, his relativism is a necessary conclusion from his premises. Though I will add that there is something for his "antirepresentationalism," even if I don't think that he argues for it in the best way (his relativism gets in the way). As for Lyotard and Baudrillard, I'm not familiar enough to say, though the very little I've read of the latter might lead me to agree.

Anyway, I always wonder who people are thinking of when they generalize the term 'postmodern.' Thanks for letting me know.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks for your thoughts and relpy. With Derrida I have not read enough of the "primary" sources myself to argue at length for a position of moral relativism, but I have been quite certain of his "literary relativism." It has been my understanding of deconstruction that it is inherently individualistic and therefore necessarily relativist. Maybe I am wrong about that-do you have any further thoughts?

Kevin Winters said...


I will also admit to not reading much of Derrida, but that bit that I have read (mostly interviews) doesn't seem to imply relativism. I read him through the lens of Heidegger/Gadamer and see his attempt at "deconstruction" as trying to bring out the "unthought" in every thought, or that which is "hidden" by certain expressions and methods. His concern is with the genuine Other, alterity, the singularity that escapes all attempts of so-called universal categorization (which always amounts to generalization, not specification). That which "escapes" is (indeed, must be) there, it does exist, or else it could not be repressed/covered over and, thus, deconstruction itself could accomplish nothing.

There are two readily-available papers that have shaped this interpretation (beyond my Heideggerian/Gadamerian background): James Faulconer's Deconstruction and John Caputo's For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida's Hyper-Realism. Both are more 'introductory' in style and content, so I would highly suggest them.

Either way, that is my take on the matter.